IRAN: THEY THINK WE’RE GREAT! (Part 4)

Welcome to Part 4 of my 4-part series, Iran: They Think We’re Great! in which I look at the history of US-Iran relations and attempt to explain how we got where we are today: each on the other’s shit list.

It’s all part of my effort to bring history and geopolitics to people who want to sound thoughtful at dinner parties but find The Economist too uppity. I’ll be releasing a new segment each week, but if you’d like the whole essay now, sign up for my newsletter and I’ll send it to you! It’s that easy!

Missed Part 1? Read it here.

You also missed Part 2? Wtf is your problem? Read it here.

You didn’t seriously miss Part 3, too? Ugh, here.

Want more Finley? I aim to please. Check out my novel, Victor in the Rubble, a satire of the CIA and the war on terror. It’s been called “wickedly funny!” and “a delight!” And don’t miss my other series, including The Intelligence Community: Smart People Looking at Computers and High Heels, Wigs, and Flamboyant Robes (or…Dictators). You can find all my writing here.

And now: Part 4


IRAN: THEY THINK WE’RE GREAT!

(Part 4)

Last week, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, aka Scary Mullah With Beard, had successfully overthrown the autocratic Shah of Iran and un-ironically named himself Supreme Leader. Pretty quickly, Khomeini’s supporters wanted to give the Americans a nice thank you present for their help in their history. After all, they had just gotten rid of the Shah, and who had put the Shah in power in the first place?

I’m Only Holding You Captive Because I Love You

On February 14, 1979, a group of about 150 Islamist radicals stormed the US Embassy in Tehran and took the staff hostage. The standoff ended a few hours later when Khomeini supporters intervened and called on the radicals to back off. The incident, known as the St. Valentine’s Day Open House, triggered a drawdown of embassy staff and led to the worst series of Hallmark Valentine’s Day cards ever (“I want you more than I want Death to America!” “You’ve captured my heart, and the rest of me. Seriously, are you ever going to let me go?” “You had met at ‘Salam, get on the floor, I’m taking you hostage.’”)

Unfortunately, Hallmark would have even less fun with the sequel.

On October 22, 1979, US President Jimmy Carter accepted the Shah into the United States for cancer treatment. The Iranian people were not pleased and thought maybe the US was once again planning to force him into power (seriously, guys, paranoia?). A large group began demonstrating outside the US Embassy in Tehran. Then a few decided to put their wall-scaling skills into practice.

On Novemer 4, 1979, students stormed the US Embassy in Tehran. Given the relatively quick resolution of the February 14 incident, most people at the embassy thought the standoff would pass in a few days. With hindsight, of course, it’s easy to see that that outlook was, well, charitable. Even though the students themselves had planned to take over the compound for only a few days, their actions proved so popular (with people outside the embassy, that is) that they were emboldened. The students held 52 American diplomats hostage for 444 days (we, the Great Satan, were already using the number 666).

Affleck Oscar

Ben Affleck won an Academy Award for his role rescuing American hostages in Iran.

In a big fuck you to Jimmy Carter, the hostages were released January 20, 1981, immediately after Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president. Six other American diplomats, who had managed to escape the embassy compound during the initial mayhem and hide out at the Canadian ambassador’s residence, had made it home a year earlier, thanks to Ben Affleck, who parlayed his success into superhero status.

So, to recap: we overthrew Mossadegh to install the Shah. Then Khomeini overthrew said Shah and his supporters took American diplomats hostage, fearing we were going to re-install the Shah, because we had done exactly that 26 years earlier.

For the next 30 years, the US and Iran acted kind of like two teenagers who wanted to hate-fuck each other. They passed notes through intermediaries, occasionally cooperated—quietly—on projects of mutual interest but then would spectacularly hurt the other just to get his attention or re-establish dominance. They’d have an occasional détente followed by playing really hard to get. Like any Good versus Evil dichotomy, each side needed the other to survive. What would the Jedis be without the Empire? The Allies without the Axis? Sam without Diane?

I know your next question: In the US-Iran dichotomy, which side is Good and which side is Evil? Depends where you begin.

Look at the Iran-Contra affair: In the 1980s, Hizballah, financed by Iran, kidnaps a bunch of Americans in Lebanon to protest American presence in that country’s civil war, thinking hey, this is Iran’s turf. The Reagan administration sells American weapons to Iran, which was under an arms embargo because Iran had taken American diplomats hostage in 1979 (because the US supported the Shah and had overthrown a legit government 26 years earlier to put the Shah in power), to get Iran to lean on Hizballah to release the American hostages who were taken hostage to discourage retaliation from the US for the bombing of the Marine barracks and US Embassy in Lebanon, which were bombed to keep the US from interfering in a civil war Iran believed was under its tutelage, not the US’s.

Confused? Don’t be. Both the chicken and the egg came first. And they’ve both been broken and scrambled and cooked into the worst omelet you can imagine, complete with beard hairs and, now, highly enriched uranium, which complicates things and makes for a glowing omelet.

Affleck Iran crowd

Ben Affleck is taller than all Iranians.

I feel like maybe I got sidetracked for a moment.

Anyway, President George W. Bush lumped Iran in with North Korea and Iraq in his Axis of Evil speech. When the United States then invaded Iraq, Iran couldn’t be too sure they wouldn’t be next (again, paranoid?). President Barack Obama, on the other hand, aimed for engagement and worked with the UN Security Council plus Germany to negotiate a deal allowing some Iranian nuke shenanigans but not much in return for access to Western money. Yay! Capitalism! This Iran Deal is either the best negotiated deal ever or the beginning of the end that will leave us all dead in a glowing puddle of radioactivity, depending on who you ask.

But all of that is at the government level. In terms of the people of each country, the story is a little different. Most Americans conflate the Iranian government and the Iranian people, and they conflate all of them with terrorists (Islam and burkas and beards, oh my!). They look at Iran and see scary religious people who hate democracy and freedom and dancing, as if Footloose took over a whole country of non-white non-American people (totally not scary when white American people act that way). And don’t even bother trying to get most Americans to compare and contrast Khomeini and his successor as Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. There’s, like, a one letter difference and that’s it. They fail to recognize the Iranian population is very educated and balanced, and many Iranians really love the United States (oh, and many of them are already here, living among us! Shhhh!). Many also really like the idea of democracy and have been fighting for it in Iran.

Green movement

Iranian pro-democracy protesters were embarrassed to learn the color green was already being used by environmental groups for their revolution, but went ahead with the theme since the green flags, banners, and balloons had already been ordered from Oriental Trading.

The Iranian people made one of their biggest pushes to gain more say over their government in 2009, with the Green Movement, in which many people believed that the reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was fraudulent. Iran saw some of the largest protests since the revolution. Many American politicians criticized President Barack Obama and wondered why the United States didn’t support the Green Movement to help it succeed in overthrowing the government. The general response from American foreign policy types was: Remember 1953? Because Iran certainly does.

Supporters of this latest push for regime change make clear their beef (and definitely not their pork) is not with the Iranian people. Indeed, they want to support the Iranian people and help them to overthrow their own government. Of course, this is what Kermit Roosevelt made it look like at the time he overthrew Mossadegh in 1953, so fair enough if some Iranians are wary (or again, paranoid?). Not sure they will like the outside influence in any case. They’ve had enough of it. But that might not stop the US. (Also, it is again rather ironic that we are discussing regime change and supporting influential groups in Iran, when our president refuses to acknowledge Russia just tried the same thing here.)

skeleton

This mural, painted on a wall of the former US Embassy in Tehran, depicts Iranians’ worry that America isn’t getting enough to eat.

So to recap: when discussing Iran, avoid the words “overthrow,” “regime change,” and “shave.”

It’s all just a game of brinksmanship, played out over and over again for the last four decades. Are we right or are they? Are they wrong or are we? The answer is simple: yes.

 

 

 

 

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IRAN: THEY THINK WE’RE GREAT! (Part 2)

Welcome to Part 2 of my 4-part series, Iran: They Think We’re Great! in which I look at the history of US-Iran relations and attempt to explain how we got where we are today: each on the other’s shit list.

It’s all part of my effort to bring history and geopolitics to people who want to sound thoughtful at dinner parties but find The Economist too uppity. I’ll be releasing a new segment each week, but if you’d like the whole essay now, sign up for my newsletter and I’ll send it to you! It’s that easy!

Missed Part 1? Read it here.

Want more Finley? I aim to please. Check out my novel, Victor in the Rubble, a satire of the CIA and the war on terror. It’s been called “wickedly funny!” and “a delight!” And don’t miss my other series, including The Intelligence Community: Smart People Looking at Computers and High Heels, Wigs, and Flamboyant Robes (or…Dictators). You can find all my writing here.

And now: Part 2


IRAN: THEY THINK WE’RE GREAT!

(Part 2)

Rise of the (Pea)Cock

When we left off last week, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had convinced US President Dwight Eisenhower that Iran’s democratically elected prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, needed to be overthrown because he was a raging communist (oh, and because of the minor detail that he wanted to nationalize Iran’s oil industry). Eisenhower called on the CIA, which called on Kermit the Frog Roosevelt to boot Mossadegh without anyone knowing who was doing the booting.

Kermit the Spy launched TPAJAX, an operation that was a mix of covert influence and propaganda, with false flag operatives and dissidents and paid protestors and a lot of cash, all thrown together to create massive chaos. The plan consisted of choosing a replacement for Mossadegh—one who would, of course, be more amenable to American demands—building support for the would-be new prime minister and the Shah, and whipping up protests and anger against Mossadegh. Basically, it was a giant mind fuck on the Iranian people: False news stories directed at strategically targeted groups, coordinated talking points from high-level US officials bashing Mossadegh, and planned and coordinated protests among anti-Mossadegh factions. (Years later, when Russia would launch a similar influence campaign to affect US elections, the United States would remember AJAX and have a good laugh at the irony of history.)

In an effort to be fair and balanced, Kermit gave the Shah a choice: participate in the coup or be deposed. Being such a strong leader, ready to fight for the rights of his people—even if it meant enormous sacrifice on his part—he pretty damn quickly agreed to cooperate and signed the agreement that would replace Mossadegh with a CIA-chosen military leader. That’s what was best for the Iranian people, or something like that.

On August 15, 1953, Mossadegh received the Shah’s decree dismissing him as prime minister. But Mossadegh was obstinate and refused to accept the order. His supporters flooded the streets, giving the Shah one big “Bye, Felicia!” The coup had failed. The Shah fled to Baghdad and then to Rome, because eating pasta and gelato is a great way to sooth yourself after a failed coup. Washington sent a message telling Kermit to come home. And that was it.

Or so it seemed. Remember, these were the beautiful days before instant communications, before Washington could micromanage every aspect of an operation.

As it turns out, Kermit decided to ignore the cable from CIA headquarters telling him to stand down. On his own volition, the little frog kept pushing. On August 19, Mossadegh turned himself in. A new, pro-American government was now in charge in Iran.

The Iranian people were thrilled that foreigners had yet again come to show them the light, this time by removing the very person they had democratically voted for. That was very kind of the democratic United States to remove him, they all thought.

Shah coronation

It’s hard to believe it now, but Shah Pahlavi, seen here crowning his wife Empress of Iran, had trouble relating to most people in his country.

The Shah—who took the CIA-engineered coup to overthrow an elected and popular prime minister as a sign that the Iranian people really loved him—preened atop the Peacock Throne. He began implementing a number of modernization programs, including giving women the right to vote. He was the first regional leader to recognize Israel (spoiler alert: this Iranian sentiment would eventually change). He also released his not-so-delicate intelligence services, known as SAVAK, on anyone who dared voice dissent, or anyone who even stood next to someone who voiced dissent. Or even that person’s neighbor. Or even that neighbor’s cousin across town. Or even that neighbor’s cousin in another country. Basically, everyone. Everyone was oppressed.

But the US was happy because the oil was flowing again. Hooray! Sure, the Shah was a dictator, but he was our dictator. Plus, he had really spiffy uniforms. We propped him up with tons of weapons, figuring he would stabilize the region on our behalf. The Shah felt empowered, however, figuring the US needed him more than he needed them. He controlled the oil, after all. As world leaders courted him and Iran’s economy boomed, the Shah’s ego got a little big for his pantaloons.

Peacock throne

Despite being covered in rubies and emeralds, the Peacock Throne is remarkably buoyant.

Turns out, all the SAVAK oppression was hiding the fact that many Iranians viewed the Shah as a puppet of the West. They also really didn’t like SAVAK. Distaste for the monarch grew, even though peacock, when prepared just right, is actually quite delicious. His subjects began to see him as corrupt—a $100 million celebration to mark the 2500th anniversary of the Persian Empire, complete with chefs from Paris’s famous Maxim’s restaurant, didn’t help—and it seemed nobody was benefiting from all those reforms he had launched.

One guy in particular was especially pissed. Ruhollah Khomeini, who would become the first Scary Mullah With A Beard with whom we Westerners would become acquainted.

Puppy

This is a picture of an adorable puppy, because no way am I risking a fatwa by putting an image of Scary Mullah With A Beard.

Next Week: The Last To Know